At an anti-Israel rally in New York last week, a young, Middle Eastern-looking fellow in a dark beard and camouflage toque leaned against a police barricade and held up a large hand-lettered sign. “Death to All Juice,” it read. A picture of the sign was widely circulated on the Internet, sparking an intense debate over whether the man was an illiterate anti-Semite, or a pro-Israel plant trying to make the protesters look like illiterate anti-Semites.
The episode underscores one of the curious things about idiocy, which is that you often can’t tell the real idiots from the people only pretending to be idiots in order to make other people look idiotic.
Consider the case of Sid Ryan, head of the Ontario wing of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. Last Monday, Ryan announced his union would table a resolution to ban Israeli academics from any activities on the province’s university campuses unless they explicitly condemn Israel’s ongoing military operations in Gaza.
Ryan described the resolution as the “logical next step” in the union’s approach to Israel—in May 2006, CUPE Ontario adopted a similar resolution in response to Israel’s war with Hezbollah, in the south of Lebanon. That move was more or less a copycat of an initiative taken by Britain’s National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education, the rabidly anti-Israel union of university lecturers, to boycott Israeli professors who did not publicly dissociate themselves from their government. The point of that non-binding resolution was to encourage British lecturers to sever ties with Israeli colleagues who were not suitably pro-Palestinian.
There are two reasons to be concerned with this latest outburst from CUPE. The first, and most easily dealt with, is academic freedom and the question of whether any university teachers’ organization should be in the business of holding foreign academics responsible for the actions of their government.
What CUPE is calling for, essentially, is a form of thought control, something no one associated with any institution of higher learning should tolerate. The great advantage—indeed, the whole point—of the ivory tower is that it walls itself off from political disputes, allowing its residents to get on with the search for truth. Academic research cannot follow fashion or ideology or be limited by lines drawn on maps. Which is what makes CUPE’s resolution so obscene: handing over truth as a hostage to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is an abdication of the university’s mission.
Thankfully, there is no reason to think that CUPE’s resolution might have any practical effect, since hardly anyone who teaches at an Ontario university falls under the union’s auspices anyway. The deeper worry relates to the underlying motivation behind Sid Ryan’s adventures in foreign policy, which are suspiciously narrow in their target.
After all, there was no mention of boycotting Palestinian academics before the recent invasion, while Hamas was air-mailing bombs into Israeli neighbourhoods by the hundreds. And again, CUPE has never seen fit to demand that American academics denounce George W. Bush, or insist that Russian professors criticize Vladimir Putin, before they should be allowed to set foot on an Ontario campus. Could there be something more sinister at work than mere concern for the immediate plight of the Gazans?
Many of Sid Ryan’s supporters have defended his proposed boycott on the grounds that it is anti-Israel in intent, not anti-Semitic. But the more we parse what Ryan has to say, the more that looks like a distinction without a difference.
First, he compared the actions of the Israeli army to those of the Nazis during the Second World War. He apologized for that remark, calling it “stupid” and explaining that he got “caught up in the emotion” of the moment. But after the National Post wrote an editorial calling him a “bigot,” Ryan fired back with a letter in which he referenced the “outright atrocities committed by an ever-expanding apartheid-type regime,” i.e., Israel. It appears Sid Ryan is easily caught up in the emotion of letter-writing.
He probably thinks he’s being clever, invoking apartheid-era South Africa and Nazi Germany. But the notion that Zionism is a form of fascism has become one of the nastiest and most poisonous themes of leftist thought in the past few decades. Perversely, it is a view that only gains credence from the violence and terror perpetrated by the Palestinians. After all (goes the argument) only a people scraping the very depths of despair could bring themselves to strap bombs to their children and send them into crowded markets and commuter buses.
By this twisted logic, the more insanely the Palestinians act, the more culpable Israel must be. The alternative possibility—that Hamas is running an ultra-criminal death cult—is never seriously considered.
Sid Ryan has become a parody of anti-Zionist leftism, a walking cliché of intolerance and barely hidden anti-Semitism. There are two possible explanations for his behaviour. The first is that he really believes the things he says, a frightening possibility that makes one wonder how much longer CUPE Ontario can stand to be associated with the man.
The second, and more pleasant, hypothesis is that he’s an Israeli sleeper agent, an idiot-provocateur whose mission is to serve Zionism by bringing the academic anti-Israel lobby into knee-slapping disrepute. In which case he’s doing a fabulous job.